Why the beloved California roll might actually be from Vancouver, BC

May 03, 22
Why the beloved California roll might actually be from Vancouver, BC

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Despite the name, the California roll first gained popularity outside of the United States in Vancouver, British Columbia. Though sometimes criticized as being 'inauthentic,' the roll was not only developed by a renowned sushi chef, but it also helped popularize Japanese cuisine around the globe.

Fresh delicious Japanese sushi with avocado, cucumber, shrimp and caviar on dark background; California roll
The California roll, a simple combo of avocado, crab, seaweed and rice, has become one of the world’s most recognizable sushi rolls © smspsy / Shutterstock

Catering to a new set of tastes

After developing his culinary skills at a traditional Japanese restaurant in Japan, sushi chef Hidekazu Tojo emigrated from Osaka to Vancouver in 1971.

He’d spent years developing his culinary skills at a traditional Japanese restaurant in Japan. According to Tojo, he was quick to recognize the limited sushi palates of Vancouverites at the time, influencing his decision to venture outside of traditional ingredients and experiment with other flavors and cooking methods. This led to the creation of the ‘inside out’ Tojo Roll – a simple combination of sushi rice, dried seaweed, avocado, crab and cucumber.

Portrait of Chef Tojo, alleged inventor of the California roll
Chef Tojo is credited with the popularization of the California Roll © Image courtesy of Tojo’s

Tojo easily predicted the popularity of the new roll, suggesting that hiding the seaweed and avoiding raw fish would make sushi seem more accessible. Though the origin of the roll continues to be most often attributed to Tojo, the history is somewhat murky, with several Los Angeles sushi chefs taking credit for it in recent years.

Today, Tojo’s alleged creation is universally known as the California roll due to the influx of visitors from Los Angeles to his restaurant at the time. Before long, the California roll could be found in cities throughout North America, as well as other parts of the world.

Tojo’s never-failing creativity and the success of the California roll helped inspire additional creations, including the BC Roll – a popular ‘inside out’ roll with barbecued salmon skin. The BC Roll is considered to be a creative take on a Japanese classic, replacing saltwater eel with salmon skin as a way to take advantage of the region’s abundance of salmon. The origins of the Rainbow Roll, Spider Roll and Golden Roll have all been attributed to Tojo as well.

A chef's hand adding ingredients to a BC roll on a wooden cutting board; California roll
Chef Tojo carefully preparing a BC roll at Tojo’s © Image courtesy of Tojo’s

In recent years, Tojo has been recognized as one of the best sushi chefs in the world by the Wall Street Journal, Vancouver Magazine and television programs such as Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. After 18 years of operating his Vancouver restaurant, Tojo was inducted into the British Columbia Restaurant Hall of Fame. In 2016, Tojo was also named a Goodwill Ambassador of Japanese cuisine by the Japanese government – one of only 13 ambassadors outside of Japan to receive such an accolade.

A trend catches fire

Though initially met with some skepticism, Tojo’s inventive rolls were eventually recognized for helping popularize Japanese cuisine across the Western world. The sushi scene in BC has boomed over the years and Tojo's continues to be one of the most highly regarded Japanese restaurants in the area. Since the introduction of the California roll, a number of other noteworthy sushi restaurants in Vancouver have developed their own version of his popular creation.

Four pieces of sushi arranged on a plate; California roll
Miku specializes in Aburi sushi, which uses a flame to lightly sear the raw fish © Image courtesy of Miku / Cody Chan

Included amongst these establishments is Miku – a trendy waterfront restaurant that specializes in Aburi-style sushi, which uses a flame to lightly sear the raw fish. Miku’s innovative take on the Vancouver classic trades crab for prawn and is wrapped in red tuna, topped with a crunchy ginger and onion sauce. The roll can also be found in Yaletown at Minami, Miku’s sister restaurant. Another stop within the city limits is Naruto Sushi, a slightly more casual eatery than some of Vancouver’s most renowned sushi restaurants, offering a deep-fried version of Tojo’s famous invention.

Other popular Vancouver joints such as The Eatery and The General Public take the innovative tactics behind the California roll to the next level, concocting rolls from unconventional ingredients such as yam, coconut, artichoke hearts and bananas. For those who are looking to keep it simple, Toshi, Tomokazu and Samurai Sushi House all offer mouthwatering traditional takes on this crowd favorite.

The beginning of ‘hands-off’ dining

Though it might be considered his claim-to-fame, Tojo’s influence extends way beyond the realm of the California roll. In the 1970s, there were only a handful of sushi restaurants in BC’s largest city. Today, Vancouver is loosely considered the sushi capital of North America, boasting more than 600 sushi dining spots in the city. Many of these sushi hot spots were designed around omakase-style dining, allowing the chef to select and curate each course of the meal.

A chef preparing a plate of nigiri surrounding a large lobster head; California roll
Omakase is a tradition of a chef selecting a series of plates © Lawrence Worcester / Lonely Planet

Translating to ‘I’ll leave it up to you,’ omakase is not so much a style of food as it is an experience. Another one of the first omakase-style restaurants to graze the area, Sushi Bar Maumi is often considered one of the best sushi spots in the city. In addition to the intimate setting and unique daily creations, the sushi bar imports its fish directly from Japan five days a week, promising a certain level of freshness and quality.

One of the newest of these joints is Sushi Bar Shu, an omakase-style restaurant located in Vancouver’s Marpole neighborhood. Creamy uni and black cod nigiri are just a few items to graze Shu’s shifting menu. Masayoshi is one more Vancouver-based sushi restaurant that relies solely on its Omakase experience while eateries such as Octopus' Garden and Tetsu Sushi Bar simply offer the chef-curated style of dining as an option.

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